The Beggar Child and the Magic Box: Experiences and Insights from Qualitative Research and Development

Thank you for inviting me to share my reflections as a researcher spanning over three decades in Kenya and beyond. My work has taken me to different countries and contexts; to areas in peace as well as those in conflict and post-conflict transition. During this time, I have interacted with people from diverse ethnicities, religions and socio-economic status, all the time learning from these interactions. While I shall refer to my experiences over the years starting at the beginning and I shall also draw insights from two recent pioneering researches that I have led --- the first on value-based education and the other on positive deviance in education. Both studies have implications for bringing research down from the ivory towers and influencing educational policy and practice in this country.

The Beginning of the Journey

The “Beggar Child” in the title of this presentation takes me back to almost 50 years to the time I was a child of 14 in what is now Bangladesh. That is when my journey into the world of research began. I was then a high school student doing a feature article for our school newspaper. This was my first experience in doing qualitative research though at the time I did not know that was what I was doing. Through the article I was able to communicate the profile of a little girl living in poverty, underprivileged and out-of-school, describing her situation, her story through her voice but as narrated by another child (that is, me). Given the limited reach of the newspaper, I doubt if that story made a difference in the lives of anybody, least of all the beggar girl. But it did make a whole lot of difference to me, in making me empathetic and developing my perspective on issues of poverty and development, and setting me off on the path to becoming a professional researcher later in life.

The choice of Anthropology for my Masters degree at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad was not a coincidence. It was a natural extension of my interest in “people-centred” research. For my thesis, I did an ethnographic study of a Bihari community. The Biharis were an internally displaced, low/middle income conservative Muslim community that lived in an urban setting not far from Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, where I lived. I spent about a year in this community. During this time, I joined in the daily lives of the community, bonding with my hosts and others, and celebrating births, weddings and other festivities with them. On multiple occasions, I witnessed my key informant possessed by what the community described as evil djinnis, chasing her mother-in-law, a huge stone in hand, threatening to hurl it at her but, interestingly enough, sparing me. I accompanied her family in the desperate search for a “pir” powerful enough to exorcise the evil spirit. And I shared in their grief when I received a message months after I had exited the field, that my key informant’s mother had been killed in an attempt to save her daughter from the djinni. I learnt to see the world through the eyes of the community, empathise with their belief in a world of angels and demons and understand their perspectives though so different from mine.

When I relocated to Kenya, I joined Kenyatta University as a Tutorial Fellow. On registration for my PhD I chose Kwale County (then a district) as my research locale, and once again chose to do an anthropological study, this time focusing on the changing roles, status and education of Digo women through pre-colonial, colonial and the post-colonial periods. There were some similarities between the Bihari and the Digo. Both communities identified as Muslim; and both believed in spirit possession. But while the Biharis were strongly patriarchal, the Digos  were traditionally matrilineal. The interface between matriliny and Islam fascinated me; I spent about 10 months over a 2 year period living in a village in Ngombeni sub-location, using participant-observation and other qualitative methods that were sensitive to the collection of gender responsive data. I had the opportunity to innovate, developing several time allocation tools that were designed to capture data on women and girls’ work and their contribution to the household economy. Most significantly,  the study findings challenged conventional anthropological notions of the status of women in traditionally matrilineal societies.

Fast-tracking to the Present

In the last four years, I have been involved in four significant pieces of commissioned research. Here, I’ll focus on two of these.

A. The National Study on Value-based Education

The National Study on Value-based Education in Kenya was massive both in terms of scale and depth. Its combined quantitative and qualitative sample was almost 13,000. We reached out to head teachers, teachers, school board members and child leaders from a total of 1500 primary schools throughout the country through semi-structured questionnaires, soliciting for their views on understanding of values and school-based practices.  We also conducted 25 in-depth school-based case studies. The majority of these were primary schools. The case studies used multiple research instruments (observations, interviews, focus groups) to collect data. The data cleaning and entry process was rigorous and done in several stages. It included regular review of field notes, verbatim transcription of audio recording of interviews and focus group discussions, entry of the transcripts into a pre-designed format, annotating the transcripts and making sure that they made sense.

Our exploration of the meaning of values and practices did not end with the survey and case studies. We threw into the pot emerging insights from a variety of stakeholder consultations (government, civil society and faith-based organisations) and the findings of media analysis (print, social and audio-visual media). We were bold --- we experimented with children’s interpretation of cartoons, what messages their favourite cartoon characters communicated to them, and which values they acquired through this media. We did contextual and thematic analysis of all the transcripts from the case studies and other qualitative sources, and triangulated with the survey findings to reconstruct the value-based education landscape in the country, but also taking on board the outlier views and issues.

I do not have the time now to enumerate all the study findings here. I shall, however, focus on  critical finding: That the positive value transmission in schools is associated with the leadership style and modeling of behavior by school heads and  administration. The study found that the value-based schools had head teachers who were:

  • Charismatic and committed

  • Demonstrated a leadership style that was inspiring, open and welcoming

  • Perceived by self and children as role models

  • Facilitated good parent and community relationships

The critical values that they possessed were Integrity, Accountability, Transparency, Cooperation, Initiative, Discipline, and Cleanliness.

This takes us to the next example that I shall be sharing with you, some insights from the Positive Deviance Study.

B. The “Magic Box” and the Positive Deviance Study

The “Magic Box” I discovered in a very ordinary public primary school during my latest research on positive deviance in education in Kenya. It contained all kinds of “treasures” much of which we tend to throw away --- little bits of wire, the hard cylindrical core of toilet rolls, stones, coins, batteries, tiny bulbs and so much more. In this very ordinary public primary school I also discovered an extraordinary teacher, an instructional leader who transformed the scrap items in the box into teaching and learning aids, instilling scientific curiosity and desire for experimentation in his pupils from very early in their lives. This was the classroom of the present and future, a classroom that welcomed children from impoverished households to access quality education at little or no additional cost.

The qualitative interview is what led me to find the “Magic Box”. The informant, who was also the head teacher of the school, proudly pointed out a small black box, sitting on the filing cabinet among a clutter of other items (including a big white rock that looked like limestone, but its was not; pile of exercise books and files; one or two trophies). This black box was his treasure trove that was continually replenished with trivia collected by the children in his classes. I witnessed the magic flowing out of that little black box, sitting at the back of the classroom, trying to observe what was going on as unobtrusively as possible. I had not planned on attending this particular lesson; it was a split moment decision. The informant welcomed me into his classroom without any hesitation. This appeared to be the norm in the school; we had the freedom to sit in any class that we wanted to observe without the school administration influencing our choice in any way.

The Positive Deviance (PD) study in Kenya started behind the desk with an analysis of primary school leaving examinations results for three consecutive years in counties that performed below the national average. Using this data, we singled out the schools that performed better in the national examinations than other schools in these counties. We then consulted the education officials in the focus counties, sub-counties and zones; and we talked casually to the cab driver, the boda boda rider, the “mama mboga”, and others we encountered on the road, in the cafe, at the marketplace seeking their opinions on the “best” schools in the locale and their reasons for their choice. We noted how they defined “best”, whether their definitions hinged only on academic performance or they took other qualities into consideration. We visited 14 schools briefly to talk to the school heads, a sample of teachers, school managements and learners using qualitative techniques, and did a school walkabout complemented by a quantitative school facility tool to get a feel of the physical and social learning environment. We eliminated schools that focused only on examination results at the cost of the child’s total well-being, schools where children complained of excessive caning and harsh punishments and teachers appeared suspicious and unfriendly. We also excluded schools which had the right combination of results and child-friendly ambience but appeared to be far better resourced than the average school in the county. We finally settled on six schools spread over five counties for the in-depth PD inquiry.

The in-depth inquiry not only confirmed the qualities of good school leadership revealed by the Value-based Education study, but provided deeper insights. For example, it demonstrated that the head teachers in the PD schools were also excellent instructional leaders. They were also Caring, Creative and Consultative. They were Determined, Delegated and Disciplined themselves. Most of all, they saw the glass as half-full and not half empty despite operating in very challenging resource-constrained environments.


Finally, I would like to remind all of us here today, that sustainable development is about working towards the common good, the good of the present as well as the future generations; it’s about regeneration, not destruction of our resources in ways that are permanent and irreplaceable. It is about pulling the beggar child out of extreme poverty, eradicating hunger and reducing gender, economic and other inequalities and discrimination in all forms, including in and through quality and inclusive Education for All, like that of the teacher with his “magic box”. It is also about putting positive values at the core of quality education, and through it, achieving sustainable development.

Doing research is an empowering process. For the qualitative researcher in particular, it is intensive, engaging, providing lifelong learning opportunities and space to refine and develop one’s skills. It places us in an unique place, certainly a privileged place to make a difference with the insights that we gain from the work that we do, remembering at all times that our role as researchers, regardless of what kind of research we do, is to move the world in the “right” direction, a direction that recognizes the common good, and promotes our shared humanity.

I believe it is our responsibility as researchers not only to conduct rigorous and high quality research, but also to communicate the findings in ways that simplifies and not mystifies if our research is going to make a difference. In my experience as a development worker, I have found that this is critical if the evidence that we generate through research is to move from  the shelves to the arena of action, and not ignored by policy makers and development practitioners alike especially in this post truth era.